Friday, October 24, 2014

Make room for mushrooms

Posted By on Fri, Oct 24, 2014 at 10:55 AM

If tomatoes and corn are the headliners of the farmers market, mushrooms would be the opening band. Some people love them, some hate them, and you're not always sure where they came from or where they'll pop up next.

While I see mushroom purveyors nearly every week at various markets, many have popped up and vanished over the years. Most recently, I discovered Allen's Farm at the Matthews Community Farmers Market, selling shiitake mushrooms from Anson County.

Mushrooms from Allens Farm

Started shortly after curiosity led Tommy Allen to a workshop hosted by Cooperative Extension Service (the organization responsible for 4H clubs, in case you didn't grow up in the country like me), the farm comes to market for the first time this fall. "I never heard of a shiitake mushroom till three years ago," Allen confesses. Planning to retire as Anson County Sheriff after 28 years, he was intrigued by the idea of growing mushrooms as a productive hobby. Today, he and his brother Richard have about 400 shiitake logs stashed in a wooded area of their old family farm.

Measuring 4 feet long and about 6 inches in diameter, each log is inoculated in regular rows of drilled holes, with spores provided by the Extension service. Receiving only the rain and temperatures granted by Mother Nature, the woodsy-tasting shiitakes take eight to 10 months to "flush out" as brown discs up to 6 inches in diameter.

The brothers inoculated their first logs in spring 2012, and gathered modest harvests that fall and the following spring. "Last year about this time, we went over there," says Allen, "and the place was covered with mushrooms. We had 82 pounds of shiitakes." The farm sells some of its crop locally, including to Sullivan Place bed and breakfast in Wadesboro, but they are happy to have the market as an outlet for their expanding harvests.

FOR MANY SHOPPERS, the familiar shiitakes are a "safer" mushroom, says Trey Wilson of Plaza Midwood Mushrooms. When presented with his hairy-looking lion's mane mushroom, however, "some people are like 'Ew, what am I supposed to do with that?'"

Wilson, the chef/owner of Customshop restaurant, has recently started up a more exotic fungus business with partner Matt Challentar. They produce lion's mane, two kinds of oyster mushrooms and reishi, a medicinal variety used in teas.

The project is more intensive and controlled than the nature-watered log method. Inside a dedicated building, the partners sterilize straw or sawdust by cooking it at 160 degrees for about an hour, then allow it to dry before inoculating the material and loading it into plastic growing bags. With two air-conditioning units to help control the temperature and moisture, Wilson estimates a typical time to harvest is two weeks.

Still, like any other farming, mushrooms are a seasonal crop. "When you see them in the woods, that's when they're at their best, in the spring and the fall," says Wilson. While production took a hit during summer's hottest months, he hopes to return to the Matthews market within the next few weeks. Once the mushrooms start popping, he's optimistic about keeping up with demand. "You can get a couple hundred pounds out of a 500 square foot building in a week."

Now that the stars of the farmers markets are fading away, keep your eye out for these unexpected harbingers of fall.

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